Yuri Gagarin: Memories of first spaceman's UK tour

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A metal fence around Manchester airport did not stop young Fred Garner from catching a glimpse of the man everyone was talking about in late 1961 - the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin.

Mr Garner, now 77, recalls: "I'd seen somewhere that he was coming to Manchester, and I said to my wife: 'Do you mind if I go have a look at him?"

She did not mind - and off he went.

But when he got to the airport, there was a problem.

He had no official invitation to meet Mr Gagarin on the runway.

So he found a building site nearby and, standing in the rain on that grey day of 12 July 1961, turned on his video camera.

As he watches on the screen of his laptop what he filmed back then, all those distant memories come rushing back - and Mr Garner smiles.

Image caption,
Gagarin had been invited to Manchester by the Foundry Workers' union. Unexpectedly, he accepted

"As the aircraft landed, the crowd started moving, and you could sense anticipation in their backs," he says, sitting in his home not far from the city centre.

"And then when the door opened, he stepped out, in his uniform. He was not a very big man, not very tall," continues Mr Garner.

He said that although it was an honour to see the world's first cosmonaut, he had never seen a Russian before, let alone someone who had been in space.

He thought Mr Gagarin, being a foreigner, would look nothing like the people in Manchester - but when he saw him, it was apparent he did not.

Then Mr Gagarin drove away - and as he disappeared in the mist, police came and chased the eager cameraman off the building site. But he had already got what he wanted - he saw the cosmonaut and got the historic footage.

Unofficial ambassador

It was Mr Gagarin's smile, his openness towards everyone he met on his world tour after the first-ever manned space flight that took place on 12 April, 1961, that charmed the West in the midst of the Cold War.

The Soviet embassy in the UK wanted to bring the cosmonaut to London. But at first, the British government was reluctant to grant a visa to Gagarin - because of the frosty relations between the two countries.

The authorities eventually found a diplomatic compromise, allowing Mr Gagarin in for a day so that he could come to a Soviet exhibition of technology and business at Earl's Court, without making it a state visit.

Image caption,
The first man in space (C) met the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (R) on his visit

At Earl's Court, he also appeared live on TV, being interviewed by British journalists - the broadcast reached TV screens in millions of homes across the UK.

"Once the British government realised how wildly popular this guy was, it quickly became a state visit, it quickly became very formal," says Richard Evans, a writer and an expert on Mr Gagarin's life.

So the cosmonaut ended up meeting the Queen and the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan.

"He made a great impression while he was [in the UK]. He was an excellent character, a wonderful guy, and what's great about him - he transcended the Cold War," says Mr Evans.

Unexpected reply

"It wasn't like 'this is one of our enemies that came here to boast about their achievements'. He was a man of the people, he united people - and that seems to be the same wherever he went in the world," he adds.

But besides meeting politicians and royalty, the UK trip took a surprising twist.

Quite unexpectedly, the Manchester-based Union of Foundry Workers invited Mr Gagarin over, and even more unexpectedly, he accepted the invite.

The UK visit was thus extended for two more days.

"What's interesting about the trip to Manchester is that it was the only one from the whole world tour that wasn't arranged by an official state body," says Mr Evans, standing beside an old brick building that used to be the headquarters of the Union.

"He came up here to see the workers - and that's one of the great things about him, because it connects with his past."

Mr Gagarin was a foundry worker himself - it was his first profession, before he became a pilot and, subsequently, a spaceman.

To get to the Union offices in Moss Side, Yuri travelled in an open-roof Rolls Royce with the number plate "YG 1".

Despite the pouring rain, he stayed in an upright position, saluting and smiling to the hundreds of people, cheering as the car drove through the city's main street.

Seeing stars

As he arrived at the entrance to the offices, he was greeted by a huge crowd. There, the Union members presented him with a gold medal with words "Together, moulding a better world" written on it.

His next stop was the Metropolitan Vickers metal factory on the city's outskirts, at the now-famous Westinghouse Road.

Image caption,
Ray Smith (pictured with his wife) was 17 when the cosmonaut came to visit

One of the workers crowded in front of the factory was Roy Darbyshire, then 28 years old, from the Industrial Control Drawing Office.

"We were all very excited. Around 25,000 workers were there and the managers decided to give us time off so we could listen to him.

"We went to a large bus park. He was on a flat-bedded lorry, with a microphone, and he spoke to us all.

"He then asked then if we had any questions. So I fired away: 'What do the stars look like out in space?'

"He laughed and said: 'I was really too busy taking care of the spacecraft to look at the stars!'"

When Mr Gagarin was heading back towards the factory, Mr Darbyshire jumped out in front of him and snapped a shot with his camera - before being removed by one of the cosmonaut's large minders and put back in line.

Police cordon

After the factory, the Rolls Royce took Yuri to Manchester Town Hall.

The local authorities did everything to make Mr Gagarin feel at home.

They even greeted him with a Soviet Union flag flying over the Town Hall and the USSR's national anthem playing as he approached.

There, too, cheering crowds gathered from all over Manchester to catch some of the young Russian's stardust.

Image caption,
Gagarin laid a wreath at the Manchester cenotaph

Schoolchildren were waving flags, younger ones even wearing home-made spacesuits, and teenage girls tried to break through the police cordon to get an autograph or at least touch their hero's bright green uniform.

"There were thousands of people here, and the girls were running to Yuri Gagarin's motorcade, wanting to hold his hand, screaming in excitement - as if he was some major pop star," recalls Ray Smith, then 17.

At the time of Mr Gagarin's visit, Ray worked at a company located directly opposite the Town Hall - and thus saw everything from his office window.

Image caption,
Patricia Paton says she was saddened to hear of the cosmonaut's death

"And he was handsome, very attractive, to the women, obviously - in his smart uniform.

"It was quite a day!" adds Mr Smith, who has since joined the Salford Astronomical Society.

One of the young women in the crowd was Patricia Paton, then 25.

Just like everyone else, she was captivated by the cosmonaut.

Up to this day, 50 years later, she has kept an old newspaper about him blasting off into space.

"Anybody who was around certainly hung around to see him. It was such a magical moment that you couldn't miss it.

"For a man to go out into space and then look back and see our world - it was something we couldn't have contemplated.

"He was such a good-looking young man - a film star could not have looked as fantastic as he did that day.

"And to die in that [plane] accident - it was just… just so sad.

"But what he achieved in his lifetime was fantastic."